by Eve Fineman
In the past several years, the proliferation of information about planetary disgrace has yielded a multitude of movements, small, large, splintered and focused, all directed at finding new ways to exist without trashing the earth. Despite the fact that we have been headed down this ruinous path for decades, and regardless of the ever-present social and political problems involving humans, this seems to be the issue, time, place, and vehicle for which people feel empowered and are demanding and enacting change. What was once an alternative, unorthodox way of thinking and living is now the dominant strain of thought weaving itself throughout most subcultures and demographics in our society.
Along with this newfound reverence for the earth comes a generation at once empathetic and curious, seeing itself within a larger context, connected and group-minded. And so, despite the central focus being environmental devastation, young people are also seeing the correlation between this and other social issues, large and small, global and personal. As a design educator, I have noticed a trend in my students’ thinking toward more social and political awareness, as well as a desire to enact change through how they live and the work that they do. This is an incredibly refreshing and challenging time for classroom culture. Students can make more out of what they study. They can do things, rather than just rely on being self-referential within highly specialized disciplines. They can externalize their skills and apply them in ways that are meaningful and whose impacts are readily apparent. They are thirsty for this.
And yet, it seems that as they desire to learn more and take action, the knowledge they are gaining is at times debilitating, creating a sense of paralysis and doom. My students are repeatedly wondering, with so many bad things happening and so much irreversible damage having occurred, how they could possibly have an impact. It is here where I suggest that, rather than hoping to solve problems or create massive waves, that they, we, everybody take micro steps in an expert way. If we recognize what we are good at and use our area of expertise to engage in a larger discourse, we will indeed have an impact. No gesture is too small to have an effect on the larger whole. So, rather than overwhelming us, I propose that we allow the overabundance of available information to enable us to approach an issue from any given discipline. Let us divvy up our tasks and actions based on our individual strengths, believing that the smaller and more focused our response to a problem, the more potential it has to transform things.
So how, specifically, do we go about being activists on a micro level? In his book Blessed Unrest, Paul Hawken shows us how hundreds and thousands of micro movements can be seen as one giant tidal wave of change, arguing it is the largest social movement the world has ever seen. Yet, instead of forming groups with mission statements and boards and non-profit status, we might also take an approach even more microscopic, which may be separated into two very basic categories: life and work.
The first infuses our daily lives with the political; we can think about everything we do as a choice and address it in an educated way. All that we say, buy, eat, watch, read and discuss is within our personal power. The latest film about corporate irresponsibility, Food, Inc., shows us ways that we can make change as individuals, literally one bite at a time. Bring a mug to work, ride a bike, eat an organic apple and discuss healthcare, and suddenly the ambient din of our everyday existence is activated, becoming exponentially influential. (If any of the above looks cool or sounds intelligent, people will ask.)
The latter, our work or studies, can be a more challenging arena in which to enact change, but can often be more influential than the personal. To myself, I have posed the following question: “how can the act of designing furniture subvert the business model of ‘growth as good’, challenge the notion of planned obsolescence, and change manufacturing processes from linear to closed-loop systems?” My solution is to invent a system of ownership that is fluid, such that people can “subscribe” to a design where parts can be returned or exchanged, melted down, re-used and repurposed, and where, when peoples’ needs change, the pieces and parts of their furniture system can be reconfigured to meet them.
Although I realize that I will not change the current way we own and use objects, I would like to think that if all designers questioned and reinvented their approach, such change would be inevitable. The point is not to solve problems, but rather to begin to chip away, attack and continually approach them from different angles, provide new perspectives, spread the information, build on the discourse, and then hopefully, eventually, the shape of that huge, daunting, overwhelming problem is altered beyond recognition. Perhaps such a small gesture as making our own beauty product or planting a tomato seed can be the final bite that causes the eventual collapse of an issue that once seemed insurmountable.